Monday, February 2, 2015

Kentucky 70 - 55 Alabama (No. 2,161)

While most of the college basketball world watched Duke's big win at UVA, we UK fans were watching Kentucky continue their winning streak.  The Cats picked up their second win of the year against Alabama with one of their best offensive performances of the season.  There were only 53 possessions in this game, which was played at a glacial pace (even by the usual standards of SEC play).  It is extremely difficult to score 70 points in only 53 possessions, especially against a defense-first team like Alabama.  But the Cats did it.

Alabama opened the game in a man-to-man defense.  A number of teams have tried this lately against UK, because Kentucky is making over 40 percent of its three-point shots in SEC play.  I've noted in recent weeks that the Cats are really focused on getting the ball inside, and at the beginning of this game I could finally see why.  Karl-Anthony Towns is having a solid game for the Cats, and I had come to think of him as a solid defensive presence who can also play some offense.  But at the beginning of this game, I saw that I have under-estimated him.  He simply destroyed the Alabama defense, with a series of old school back-to-the-basket moves the likes of which I haven't seen at UK in many years.  He went 4-4 from the floor, and 4-4 at the line.  Then, when Alabama started collapsing on him, he started whipping passes to Willie Cauley-Stein and others, which also turned into easy baskets.  After 10 minutes, the Cats were up 20-7 and Alabama had to abandon their man-to-man defense.

For the rest of the game, the Tide mostly played zone.  That decision, along with a decision by the officials to whistle five fouls on Towns in only 15 minutes of playing time, limited Towns's impact on the game.  But now I can see what the UK coaches are thinking -- good teams will play man-to-man against the Cats, and UK's front line (including Towns) has to be ready to take advantage.  If Towns plays like he did at the beginning of this team, the possibilities for UK are enormous.

Of course, the Cats have had lots of practice against zones, and they had little trouble with Alabama's.  By the time the game was over, the Cats had put up the following numbers:

17-26 from two-point range (65.4 percent)
7-15 from three-point range (46.7 percent)
15-23 from the line (65.2 percent)
Only 5 turnovers.

It was also a clinic of team play.  Look at how the points were scored:

Towns:  12
Cauley-Stein:  12
Booker:  11
Aaron Harrison:  10
Lee:  8
Ulis:  6
Johnson:  6
Andrew Harrison:  5

Eight players each scored between five and 12 points.  That's almost unheard of.

Anyway, that's how  you score 70 points in only 53 possessions.

Now if UK had played its usual defense, Alabama would have only scored about 45 points, and the game would have been a real blow-out.  As it was, Alabama shot over 61 percent from two-point range, as the Tide kept getting good looks inside.  At the time, I thought Alabama had gotten better at running its offense, and that the Cats were a little flat after getting their big lead.  But I wonder now if UK's defense was hurt by the loss of Trey Lyles, who missed the game with an illness.  Lyles is a very solid player, and it would be surprising if his absence had no effect.  Nevertheless, the Cats still put up another solid victory.

21-0.  8-0 in conference.  10 games left.

Here's what's left for the Cats (each team's conference record in parentheses).  Seven of UK's last 10 games are against teams with winning records in the SEC:

2/3:  Georgia (5-3)
2/14:  S. Carolina (2-6)
2/21:  Auburn (2-6)
2/28:  Arkansas (5-3)
3/7:  Florida (5-3)

2/7:  Florida (5-3)
2/10:  Louisiana St. (5-3)
2/17:  Tennessee (5-3)
2/25:  Mississippi St. (3-5)
3/3:  Georgia (5-3)

That is a rugged collection of games, especially if Lyles can't play.  But I look forward to seeing how the Cats deal with the challenge.

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